School of Public & Environmental Affairs Podcast Series
For many Americans, Vietnam conjures images of war and humiliating defeat. But since the mid-1970s, Vietnam has rapidly modernized, becoming the world’s second fastest growing economy after China. But, as in many developing countries, Vietnam’s growth has been accompanied by widespread corruption.
“Probably the most common type of corruption in developing countries which is cash bribe,” says SPEA researcher Anh Tran. “Basically, when a company or a private citizen would like to get a contract from the government or sell something to the government or get some license, that company usually pays a bribe.”
One of the most difficult challenges in studying corruption is collecting data. Understandably, many people who are part of corrupt systems are not always willing to talk openly about their business dealings. Tran, though, has been more successful than most.
“It’s important to first build trust with the people, to let them know that I have only a research purpose,” says Tran, who grew up in Vietnam after the Vietnam War and witnessed firsthand the country’s transition from poverty to robust growth. “I ask them about their experience, about their view, their information. Some people are willing to share data with me about corruption, so that helps.”
One of the most interesting observations that Tran and others have made about corruption is that it is not all equally harmful. For example, while corruption has almost completely destroyed many economies in sub-Saharan African, it has grown alongside but not totally derailed Vietnam, China, and India. Although how and why corruption affects countries differently remains a puzzle, Tran suspects that it has to do with the relative stability of a nation’s government.
“In sub-Saharan Africa, a country often has a lot of tribes and there is always infighting,” he says. “When a politician comes into power, he or she doesn’t know how long he’ll be in office. So maybe because of that short horizon perspective that politician tries to grab as much as he or she can before the government is changed. While in China and Vietnam the government is much more stable.”
For some scholars, bribes and other forms of corruption are grease for the wheels--necessary incentives to spur low-paid, unmotivated government officials to grant licenses in a timely manner. But ultimately, Tran says, corruption is a destructive force.
“The problem is that when that happens, the official will think, if I try to delay all the services I deliver, I will probably get more bribes,” he says. “And that makes corruption more harmful and that I think is what is actually happening in many places.
As for what can be done to curb corruption, there are no easy answers. In rare cases, such as in small island nations including Singapore and Hong Kong, government-led, top-down approaches to stamping out corruption have worked well. In many other countries, though, such as in the United States, dealing with corruption has taken a long-term, grass roots approach.
“Western countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were quite corrupt about 100 years ago,” Tran says. “There was gradual process of becoming less corrupt during which the participation of grass roots groups, the media sector, and the participation of associations of businesses and lawyers were very important to push political change.
For his part, Tran is attempting to affect change in Vietnam through the Vietnam Young Leader Award program, whereby a select group of Vietnamese civil servants come to SPEA for two years of study and training in governance and public policy.
“The group that we’re training here and sending back to Vietnam hopefully will improve the governance in the country,” says Tran, who was instrumental in developing the program. “They will bring knowledge and practices they were able to learn during the two years they study at SPEA to Vietnam and innovate the way the government works, improve the policy making process and through that they can help to bring in good governance, reduce corruption, and making Vietnam a better place.”
Learn more about corruption in the developing world.